Gulyás might be the best-known of Hungarian soups, but halászlé (fisherman’s soup) is an equally-worthy and emblematic Hungarian dish. It is the lesser-sung knockout prepared for centuries by fishermen and their families along the banks of the Danube, Tisza rivers, and Lake Balaton (or wherever else there is freshly-caught fish). Following the Hungarian proverb “as many houses, as many customs”, this local favorite exists in many versions. Some versions include cream, others are served over pasta, but all are made using one or more locally-caught freshwater fish such as carp, pike, perch, catfish, bream or sterlet. It’s a Christmas Eve dinner staple, but the spring-summer fishing season also brings an abundance of raw material for year-round consumption.
There are many different schools of thought about what makes halászlé so special, but the difference between an average bowl and a melt-in-your-mouth one comes down to three elements. First, using a variety of fish gives this dish depth, as does a preliminary broth made out of fish giblets (which are strained and used to cook the larger chunks of fish in). Second, the seasoning—which is usually a mix of paprika, peppers and onions—must be fresh. And third, the soup must be rich with flavor. Preparing it all in a cauldron over an open fire is also often cited as an absolute must in making a memorable and complex halászlé.
While there are many traditionally-oriented restaurants in Budapest that offer halászlé, the place that consistently delivers on all three categories (fish variety, fresh seasoning, and decadent flavor) is Sipos Restaurant. There are two outlets—Régi Sipos (Old Sipos) and Új Sipos (New Sipos), both in the quiet Óbuda neighborhood—and they specialize in fish dishes, including a hefty variety of fisherman’s soups.
Chefs at both places prepare the dish either Szeged style (which is a thick and vividly red broth and includes a variety of filleted fish) or Bajai Style (which is made with only carp, which is cooked in the broth over a medium-high heat together with all of ingredients, and served on a bed of thin pasta). Some of the varieties of halászlé here come in small portions (csésze) while others in larger portions (in a bogrács, which is a meal in itself), with optional added giblets. All are served with a basket of sliced white bread, an essential component of halászlé. Depending on our mood, we like to eat our halászlé with a glass of chilled olaszrizling or a light red, such as a kadarka or a kékfrankos. But in the summer we are equally happy to have our halászlé paired with a fröccs (spritzer).
Caveat: The food, specifically halászlé, is what these places excel in. The decor, service, and perhaps some of the other dishes leave a lot to be desired (with the exception of Bock Bisztro, which is one of Budapest’s top restaurants).
Lajos utca 46, 1036 Budapest
+36 1 247 6392
Fő tér 6, 1033 Budapest
+36 1 388 8745
Four More Spots in Budapest For Great Fisherman’s Soup:
Erzsébet körút 43-49, 1073 Budapest
+36 1 321 0340
In the hot-weather season, local celebrity chef Lajos Bíró whips up a cauldron of fantastic fisherman’s soup in the restaurant’s beer garden.
Hollós út 2, 1121 Budapest
+36 1 275 5245
Deep in the heart of the Buda hills lies this rustic spot that serves up large kettles of ruby-coloured fisherman’s soup made mostly from carp.
Árpád út 20, 1042 Budapest
+36 1 231 0800
It’s a bit off the well-trodden tourist track, but the fresh and fiery fisherman’s soup at this traditional venue is worth the trek.
Fő utca 27, 1011 Budapest
+36 1 212 3780
This restaurant, located in Buda near the Chain Bridge (and just a block from the Danube), specializes in fisherman’s soup, and has many varieties Try the korhely halászlé, which has added sour cream and lemon juice.